The drug war has been going on for so long that the inward, secret lives of narcotics traffickers are beginning to take on a life all of their own, separate from the national borders we know as their homes. The traffickers have their own rituals, coded languages, technology. And now, even a secret religion has sprung up around their lives.

It’s called the cult of Santa Muerte — “Holy Death” — and it’s more intense and deadly than anything that came before it.

The worshippers of Santa Muerte are primarily disenfranchised, poor Mexicans who turn to the cartels as a means of employment but soon begin the same cycle of murder and torture as those who came before them. The activities they’re forced to conduct aren’t accepted by pure Catholicism, so they turn elsewhere for comfort.

Santa Muerte has been developing as a belief system for over 50 years or more. According to the FBI, “The Santa Muerte cult could best be described as [following] a set of ritual practices offered on behalf of a supernatural personification of death […] she is comparable in theology to supernatural beings or archangels.” Unlike Death or the Virgin of Guadalupe, as she is often represented, the scales she holds don’t actually work — a reflection of her amoral nature. Since many narco foot soldiers will end up dying a brutal death, the appeal of worshipping a death-like figure is obvious. In the meantime, Santa Muerte advocates are enjoying the world’s earthly pleasures.

While the FBI stops short of calling the worship of Santa Muerte a full-blown religion, it does have its own belief system, as well as priests, temples, and shrines, along with all the rituals associated with religion — including ritual killings.

Border agents and local police have been thoroughly trained on the ins and outs of the religion and its followers.  Luckily very few have been seen on the U.S.-side of the border.

This article was written by Blake Stilwell and originally published on WE ARE THE MIGHTY.

Image: Business Insider